Constable’s Skies – A talk by Professor John Thornes at Boat House Gallery, National Trust, Flatford on 6th March 2018.
Professor John Thornes, Professor of Applied Meteorology discusses the sky in John Constable’s paintings. To John Constable the sky was “the keynote”, the “standard of scale” and the “chief organ of sentiment” in landscape painting but how much meteorology did Constable understand? John Thornes, a professional academic meteorologist, discusses why the sky plays such an important part in Constable’s most famous representation of British landscape, The Haywain. Recorded by Stuart Bowditch.
John Thornes and Sarah Milne standing in front of Willy Lott’s House, Flatford.
In this blog post he explores John Constable’s painting of a rainbow over Salisbury Catherdral. The Archdeacon John Fisher he refers to was once the Parish priest of Langham, at the side of the Stour, and that is where Constable and Fisher became friends.
John Thornes writes…
When and why was the puzzling rainbow in Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow painted?
As part of Tate’s In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, I have been researching the rainbow and I have found new meteorological evidence that supports the theory that the rainbow was added over a year after the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy.
John Constable’s powers of observation and his thirst for meteorological knowledge propelled him to paint more natural-looking skies than nearly all other English artists before or since. In his own words:
‘Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’
This experimental approach was certainly applied to the clouds and weather in Constable’s paintings, but it was not the case with all of his depictions of rainbows. Unlike clouds, rainbows are seen much less frequently in his work and may be considered more mysterious in their symbolic function. Although Constable knew that the sun must be directly behind the observer of a rainbow for the rainbow to be visible, this is plainly not so in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows , in which the sun’s rays emerge from the right of the composition. Why should Constable be such a perfectionist about the weather in his scenes – his accurately depicted clouds, the effect of wind and harmonic daylight – and yet be content to introduce a meteorologically inconsistent rainbow?
My theory is that Constable’s remarkable scientific knowledge enabled him, at a later date, to add a rainbow that corresponds to the time of his friend Archdeacon John Fisher’s death on the afternoon of 25 August 1832. Resting on Fisher’s house, ‘Leadenhall’, the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has been painted into a sky that is lit by sunlight coming from due west, which is confirmed by the way light illuminates the west front of the cathedral. A rainbow produced from this solar geometry and resting on Leadenhall would only have a height in the sky of up to about 22 degrees, and would occur in early August at around 5pm (GMT).
Constable has magnified the size of the cathedral and rendered the rainbow much taller than would have been possible. Solar geometry confirms that from the artist’s viewpoint close to the Longbridge, a full 42-degree rainbow resting on Leadenhall and arching over the cathedral would have been visible during the late afternoon of 25 August at around 7pm (GMT). This reasoning suggests that Constable expressly chose to add the rainbow to a painting in which the sun is not directly behind the viewer as a magnificent remembrance of his friend John Fisher.